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July 19th, 2016

The Power of Play

By Dr Amanda Gummer, MD and Founder, Fundamentally Children

Parenting can be tough, and at times stressful, but I think we would all agree that the hardest job in the world is also often the most rewarding. There is a great deal of work involved in bringing up children, but I have some good news for you – it doesn’t all have to be hard work, -there’s plenty of research that shows having fun with your children is the best way to help them to develop.

The importance of enjoying the formative years for both children and adults, cannot be over-stated. At Fundamentally Children, we believe passionately in playing together as a family, as well as encouraging children to play alone, thus allowing them to learn and develop naturally. This play helps them to learn about the world from their first few days, right the way through to adulthood.

But in a world that places pressure on us at every turn, we often worry about whether are children are playing in the right way, with the right toys, doing the right activities, etc. For this reason, the play diet is ideal for helping to get the balance just right.

The play diet

Moderation in everything might sound like a boring old mantra, but in the same way that nutrition is about balancing the food groups, a healthy play diet is about balancing different types of play activities. The play diet is a practical approach that you can use to help guide the activities you encourage your children to do. By developing a balanced approach and creating healthy habits as the norm, you can treat children occasionally and not feel bad.

Here are our top five tips to help balance your child’s play diet:

  • Active, child-led play is the superfood of the play diet. So try to make this a big part of your daily routine
  • Balance inside and outside activity and choose toys that can be used inside to promote active play even when the children can’t go outside.
  • Don’t forbid screen time or tech play. Engage with it but don’t use it as a baby-sitter
  • Mix and match playmates – children play differently with different people so involve other family members, older and younger children as well as peers.
  • Do your research before buying toys, tech or apps for children to make sure they’re going to get maximum benefit from it.

Let the child decide

Sometimes we are prone to over worrying about every detail of our child’s life. But an important part of development is allowing children to choose how they play. You can offer them a range of options (try not to put too many on the table, as this can become overwhelming) and then let them guide you. Try to ensure that, weather permitting, some of this play takes place outdoors. Whether that’s exploring the local forest, going out for a walk to the park, or kicking a ball around in the garden, there are lots of ways to encourage children to get outside and the benefits are huge.

The tech debate

We often feel instinctively guilty about the time we allow our children to spend on screen-based entertainment. There is indeed plenty of research to suggest too much screen time can have a detrimental impact and can contribute to obesity; a reduction in time spent outside; impaired social development; eyesight issues and more.

However, there is also growing evidence to suggest a small amount of screen time is useful for children. Learning to use and self-regulate media usage at a young age can help children be more resilient to inappropriate content they come across. The use of tablets, apps and the internet prepares them for a world full of technology, and playing the right sort of apps can in fact aid child development and help them to learn.

So the key when deciding on screen time is, again, moderation. We need to ensure our children’s screen time is not excessive and that they are benefitting from the other elements of the play diet, but if we give them access to the right apps, games, etc, then a small amount of screen time is not detrimental and can in fact be described as educational and can support development.

Parent-child play

Spending time interacting with your child is valuable to you both as it helps promote a strong bond and allows your child to feel confident and secure. However the time you spend together should be authentic and feeling comfortable with the activity is paramount.  Strengthening this bond can really help with behavioural difficulties too. If you are part of the fun, exciting times, as well as the less fun jobs and the disciplining, children are much more likely to take notice of you and do what you ask them to.

If you don’t enjoy certain types of play, it’s fine to admit this. No longer should we feel guilty for saying we don’t want to do certain activities or play in a specific way. It’s also important not to compare yourself to other parents, as we are all different and what works for one family may not work for yours. Spend some time working out what activities you do enjoy and focus on those. It’s OK to take the role of parent rather than their friend and avoid play you find boring.

Try to slot your favourite types of play into your routine so you can look forward to them. There may be other adults in your child’s life, who enjoy different styles of play to you, so encourage those interactions, as well as play with other children for a balanced approach.

Which products are best?

There is such a wide choice of toys, apps and products, each claiming fun and educational qualities, that it can be tricky to know which is best. So it’s well worth doing your research before purchasing. Read independent reviews from parents and children, and also from experts, to ensure the claims are true and you won’t be wasting money on something that could become clutter and not be played with.

For more expert tips on play, child development, and products, visit www.fundamentallychildren.com, or have a read of my book, Play.

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July 04th, 2016

It’s NOT about the shoes!

I find myself thinking about the first day back at school, even though the summer has yet to begin. 

My teenagers will still need some help and ‘encouragement’ in September to get themselves organised, but it will be easier than it has been before. We’re used to it, after all. 

So I am not thinking so much about the next first day back but more about all the first days that have come before. What have I learned over the last decade? 

I am a self-confessed planner. Being organised makes me feel better, as if it proves I am doing the best job I can. 

And for the last ten summers, I have focused on the practical details of the first day at school, including the Big Shoe Dilemma. 

Do I go early, and avoid the queues and get it done, but risk their feet growing over the holidays? Or indeed, as once happened, getting the right shoes, only to lose them altogether by the time September arrived! 

Or do I go later, and risk the mad scrum and the possibility they will have to turn up in the ‘wrong’ shoes because the ones they wanted, or needed, are not available in their size? 

I have spent many hours of my summer working out the ‘right’ way to name socks, lunch boxes, pants, etc. 

And after a decade of first days back, I get it. It was never about the shoes or any of the other practical stuff. And it was not something that I suddenly turned my hand to in mid-August. 

It’s not about their external world, although of course this matters. The wrong lunch box can send your child into a spin, and the whole “where to put the name-tapes” also matters if you want to (1) keep a track of things and (2) have a hyper-sensitive child who really can feel every stitch and wrinkle. 

It is about their internal world.  Our children’s success, or otherwise, at school depends on what they carry inside, not on the outside. 

What does it really take to do well at school? 

Yes, you need shoes and pencils, and a water bottle. There is a whole lot to be said for being punctual and prepared. And I still believe in tidiness and hope, one day, my sons will voluntarily use a hairbrush. And, yes, it’s also a bit about knowing your numbers and letters. 

More than anything it’s about knowing how to listen, how to co-operate, how to wait, how to focus and keep going when things get tricky, how to make things interesting, how to read other people and communicate. This is what helps children do their best at school. 

And we can help them develop these valuable skills day in, day out, by paying attention to all the little steps they take in the right direction. Because none of these things come naturally to small people! 

So this summer, I am not stressing about nametapes or shoes. I am going to keep my eye on the end goal and focus on their internal world – I want to notice every time they listen, wait, help, co-operate, plan and problem-solve, and make suggestions and show initiative. And I will say something to them about how it is appreciated and valued.  

And, as teenagers, they have most of the practical stuff ‘sorted’ and sometimes their growing competence can mean I feel they don’t need me any more. 

Is my work done? Of course not! And quite honestly I never want it to be! Helping my sons understand and manage their inner world is something I can do for a while yet. Oh, and I also need to teach them to iron! 

What advice would you have for parents of children going back to school in September? How can they use the holidays to prepare? 

Juliet Richards, facilitator at The Parent Practice

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